By John Helmer, Moscow
Interpol publishes the names of less than a third of the people identified by Red Notices as wanted for arrest. That’s so fugitives can’t know the risks of apprehension they run when they try crossing international borders. The Red Notice for Bekhzod Akhmedov has been published  because the authorities in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, want it to appear that Akhmedov is still on the run – that is to say, alive and well, and not in Uzbekistan. If after arguing with Gulnara Karimova last May or June he never made it out of the country, if he has been dead since then, Interpol is helping to cover up the crime of how he died, and who killed him.
Karimova is the senior daughter of Islam Karimov, the President of Uzbekistan since the end of the Soviet Union in 1990. Karimova is the dominant business figure in the country. Her father, just turned 75, is serving out the last of the terms allowed by the Uzbek constitution. The next presidential election, due in December 2014, has been postponed to March 2015. That allows just two years to fix the succession on terms that will suit the Karimov family, but powerful enough to keep a lid on every variety of dissent which has been repressed in the country to date. That’s a tall order – expensive too.
The shortage of time may have been one of the factors which last June led Karimova to decide to cut the number of mobile telephone concessions in Uzbekistan from three to two. What she did was to target the largest of the operators, the Russian-owned Uzdunrobita, which at the time commanded about 40% of the Uzbek subscriber market. The owner, Vladimir Yevtushenkov, fought back, and the Russian government took on his side. In the process Karimova’s Moscow apartment has been arrested by a Moscow court order. In the meantime, the two remaining operators in Uzbekistan – Ucell of TeliaSonera, and Beeline of Vimpelcom – have prospered. Ucell’s revenues have increased by about $485 million; Beeline’s by about $100 million. Click  for the accounting of their profits and the story so far.
In this tale, Akhmedov is almost as important as Karimova. Swedish investigators looking into whether TeliaSonera paid bribes to Karimova for market entry have identified Akhmedov as “chief executive of Goulnara Karimova’s investment group”; and the principal negotiator with TeliaSonera for the start-up of its Ucell concession in 2007. Akhmedov appears to have been the Uzbek source on whom TeliaSonera relied when it bought the telephone operating rights which an offshore company called Takilant was selling. Akhmedov assured TeliaSonera (the company now says) that what it was buying was “an efficient, fully practical and legal method for transferring the rights.” No sooner done than Akhmedov moved on to become chief executive of Uzdunrobita, the Yevtushenkov-owned rival.
Nobody is in a better position to testify to Karimova’s involvement in the 2007 entry of TeliaSonera, and her relationship to Takilant, TeliaSonera’s Uzbek operating partner. Akhmedov was the negotiator when TeliaSonera and Takilant agreed in December 2007 to value their joint venture holding company, the Dutch-registered Uzbek Telcom Holding B.V, at about $846 million, and commence a scheme of options and instalment payments into Takilant’s bank account. Akhmedov is in a position to say how much of the TeliaSonera payments so far to Takilant have gone to Karimova. He also can testify to how well TeliaSonera’s executives, including the recently departed chief executive Lars Nyberg, knew this when they agreed to make the payments to the Swiss bank, Lombard Odier.
Akhmedov is therefore the prime witness for Swiss investigators of alleged money laundering at the Lombard Odier accounts, and for Swedish investigators of TeliaSonera’s alleged corruption. Too bad for them that Akhmedov’s whereabouts are unknown.
Not long after Akhmedov and Karimova had their reported falling-out over the Uzdunrobita scheme, Akhmedov reportedly left Uzbekistan. He hasn’t said anything publicly since, and he hasn’t been located.
Russia’s General Prosecutor was reported in July as having arrested Akhmedov and extradited him immediately to Tashkent. That story  originated, not in Moscow, but in Tashkent. The immediate Russian media reaction  was not to believe it. The General Prosecutor’s office in Moscow was asked this week to confirm the two details – had he been arrested? Had he been sent back to Uzbekistan? The reply was that “the Main Department has checked it and there is no information on Bekhzod Akhmedov.” That means there was no arrest, no extradition.
Akhmedov’s employer at the time of his disappearance, Yevtushenkov’s Mobile Telesystems (MTS), is saying: “MTS does not have information on this issue”. Yevtushenkov’s spokesman is at his Sistema holding in Moscow. Asked whether he can confirm the report of Akhmedov’s arrest or his current whereabouts, Yevtushenkov said through the spokesman: “As Akhmedov’s contract has expired in the summer and he doesn’t work for MTS anymore, [we] can’t say anything about him at all.” The implied timing suggests that Akhmedov was still under contract in July, and was protected by Yevtushenkov from arrest or extradition, if indeed he had fled from Tashkent to Moscow.
MTS isn’t confirming or denying that Akhmedov held a Russian passport. Under Article 61 of the Russian Constitution, as a Russian national he could not have been extradited to Uzbekistan.
Alive and talking, Akhmedov is a valuable asset in Yevtushenkov’s campaign to prevent Karimova winding up his mobile telephone network in Uzbekistan, and turning over its infrastructure and 9 million subscribers to the two surviving competitors, TeliaSonera and Vimpelcom. Although the Uzbek operations are worth less than 5% of MTS’s earnings, on fair valuation the assets in Uzbekistan are worth at least $1 billion. Commercially, that’s Akhmedov’s net present value too.
The evidence he can give is also an asset to the Russian Government, as it considers the options for the next presidential election in Uzbekistan and the Karimov succession. Akhmedov’s personal testimony, and the documentary evidence being amassed in Geneva and Stockholm, might expose Karimova to criminal indictments in at least two European jurisdictions, not to mention curtailment of her travel and fresh ignominy in the domestic and international press. If she and her father had been contemplating her succession, Akhmedov nixes the chances.
If Akhmedov is dead and buried, Karimova’s position in line for the succession would be more secure. So would her take from the restructuring of the Uzbek telecommunications concessions, and from TeliaSonera’s payments, since there appear to be no other credible witnesses capable of penetrating the fronts used to accumulate the money and substantiate the allegations that Karimova has been the prime beneficiary.
There is a third possibility — that Akhmedov is alive and well, but gagged. Since the Interpol notice was issued in July, Akhmetov hasn’t been able to do too much travelling. If he values his own life and the lives of his family, he is unlikely to surrender to the Swiss, the Swedes, or another western security establishment interested in putting him on trial, or extracting testimony against Karimova in exchange for his freedom.
That leaves Russia. Viewed from the battlements of the Kremlin wall, Yevtushenkov’s stake in Uzbekistan is modest in money terms, but if irretrievably lost, there are two Russians who gain in his place. The first is Mikhail Fridman, whose Beeline concession is growing fast into the place previously occupied by Yevtushenkov.
The second Russian is Alisher Usmanov. He was not directly involved as TeliaSonera’s partner in the Ucell concession, or in the Uzbek joint venture set up with Takilant. His name does not appear in the report  on alleged corruption in Uzbekistan by TeliaSonera, released last week in Stockholm by the law firm Mannheimer Swartling. However, Usmanov is a partner with TeliaSonera in Megafon, the Russian mobile telephone concession which listed its shares on the London Stock Exchange last November. Usmanov controls 50% plus one share of Megafon; TeliaSonera, 25% plus one. Usmanov’s ties to TeliaSonera and chief executive Nyberg were reported here .
Usmanov, an Uzbek by birth, also has a relationship with Karimova. Just what this is he has been at pains to deny in the past. In 2007, for example, he answered  a questionnaire from the Guardian of London, claiming: “There isn’t any relationship between me and President Karimov and any members of his family.” He added: “I have no intention to participate in politics of Uzbekistan, nor do I have an intention to become a politician anywhere.”
Times change. Last September Usmanov told  Reuters in an extended interview at his Moscow house that he is tiring of business, and continues only out of duty. “”Honestly, I don’t want to do business any more, but you have a responsibility towards business that you (already) have.”
Within days, Usmanov was in Tashkent, at the celebration of the marriage of his nephew with a member of the Karimov family. Karimova was reportedly present. Usmanov also got up to make a speech. This is part of what Usmanov said, according to one report: “I have always financed all activities of Gulnara Karimova, and will continue to do so.” The trace of that report has subsequently disappeared from the internet.
A report  in The Times of London, published on November 12, claims: “The oligarch has previously said that he has ‘no relationship, business or political alliances with Ms Karimova’ and had only met her ‘during official events organised by the Uzbekistan Embassy and by the Cultural Fund of Uzbekistan in Moscow’. However, The Times has learnt that they both recently attended a society wedding in Tashkent at which Mr Usmanov gave a toast thanking Ms Karimova for attending. Sources close to Mr Usmanov insisted that he did not pledge his support for her future political ambitions, but his speech comes at a difficult time for Ms Karimova, who has been linked to a Swiss money laundering investigation over allegations that she accepted hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes.”
By the time Usmanov and Karimova were hobnobbing together, Akhmedov had been gone for almost three months. But his fate, and what he might yet have to say about the other two, give what Usmanov actually said at the wedding more than passing significance. Usmanov’s spokesman in London, Anastasia Gorokhova, an associate partner of RLM Finsbury, a public relations firm, was asked to confirm what was said. She replied “Mr. Usmanov was present at the wedding of his nephew which is the ceremonial process undertaken by two young people in love, their relatives and their guests. Celebrating with the newlyweds, Mr. Usmanov wished them happiness and expressed his hope for the future peaceful and successful development of Uzbekistan which is where the newlyweds were born.” The spokesman has declined to say what, if anything, Usmanov had said about Karimova.
The Times website reports that since the November 12 publication, “this article is the subject of a legal complaint from Alisher Usmanov.” This stops well short of a correction or clarification, and there is no sign that Usmanov has instructed London libel specialists, the Schillings law firm, to go to court. Schillings, which has represented Usmanov before, refuses to say if the firm is representing him now in a claim against The Times. In fact, Schillings lawyer Alan Dunlavy is acting for Usmanov. The newspaper is also reticent about what the claim is about.
Usmanov’s spokesman was asked to say what in the newspaper report is the focus of his “legal complaint”. She hasn’t replied.
Her only clarification of what Usmanov said at the wedding is that the speech “can in no way be interpreted as support of some kind of political ambitions. Mr. Usmanov has never had any political or business interests in Uzbekistan, but is deeply fond of his homeland and hopes it achieves great success.”
President Vladimir Putin has never met Usmanov, at least not in an officially recorded meeting, one on one. But he’s bound to have an opinion of him. Usmanov was at pains to tell his Reuters interviewers last September that “Russia should be grateful to Putin.”
So is he likely to prove ungrateful and object if the Kremlin decides that Usmanov should combine his fondness for his homeland, his duty to his motherland, and his hope for their respective successes, and put himself forward as the candidate to succeed Karimov at the election of March 2015?
The precedent for such a transfer has been set in Georgia, where Boris (now Bidzina) Ivanishvili transformed himself from an Usmanov-sized businessman in Moscow to the leader of a new Georgian political party and won the parliamentary election of October 2012. If it took Ivanishvili two years to challenge the anti-Russian regime of President Mikheil Saakashvili, and become Georgia’s prime minister, Usmanov should be starting his Uzbek presidential campaign just about now.
What if Karimova and her father aren’t as susceptible to Usmanov’s ministrations, nor as keen to oblige the Kremlin as Usmanov himself? That’s where Akhmedov comes back in. That is, if he’s under Russian state protection, alive, his vocal organs intact, and safe from all his ill-wishers, Interpol included.